Bob Smizik: Worst appears behind Pitt

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It’s hard to remember a worse period for the Pitt basketball team during the Jamie Dixon-era -- other than the nightmarish 2011-12 season -- than the six-game stretch completed yesterday with a 75-71 loss at North Carolina. The transition to the Atlantic Coast Conference, which looked easy enough early in the season, has proven more formidable than expected. And this in what is believed to be a down year for the league.

After losing for only the second time and the first time in the conference by four points at Syracuse on Jan. 18, the Panthers looked primed to make a run for the regular-season title. They solidified that status with wins over Clemson, by a whopping 33 points, and at Maryland, by four to move to 18-2 and 6-1.

No one saw what was coming, not even with Duke the next game on the schedule. The Blue Devils had been struggling and with the game at the Petersen Events Center, a Panther win was not hard to envision. Instead, Duke pulled away in the final 10 minutes to win by 15 and Pitt simply has not been the same.

The loss to Duke was followed by another home loss, this one to Virginia. Then came bad wins against two of the worst teams in the ACC -- overtime at Miami and double-overtime at home vs. Virginia Tech. That was followed by a home loss to Syracuse and yesterday’s defeat at North Carolina.

There are positives to be taken from this. Pitt has played considerably better in the two most recent defeats -- losing to Syracuse on a last-second desperation shot and playing North Carolina close until the end while on the road.

The Panthers almost certainly will fall out of the top 25 this week but their season is far from lost. They have five games remaining and winning all of them is not out of the question. In fact, it could be expected.

• Feb. 23 vs. Florida State: The Seminoles, 6-7, 15-10, have lost five of their past seven games. Given Pitt’s struggles with Virginia Tech, which Florida State beat by 20 on Feb. 5, nothing is a given. But at home, Pitt should win.

• Feb. 26 at Boston College: The Eagles are 6-18, 2-9. If there’s such a thing as a sure win on the road, this is it.

• March 1, at Notre Dame: The Irish, 13-12, 4-8, have been nothing but trouble for Pitt in recent years. The fact this game is at South Bend makes it all the more challenging. But the Irish lost at home to Boston College Feb. 1. They are not very good.

• March 3, vs. North Carolina State: The Wolfpack, 16-9, 6-6, lost at Syracuse by one yesterday. But they also lost at home to Pitt by 12 on Jan. 14. It will be a long time between games, but it’s hard to imagine Pitt losing at home to a team it beat on the road by 12.

• March 5, at Clemson: The Tigers, 15-9, 6-6, looms as Pitt’s toughest remaining game, despite the whipping they took at the Pete last month. Still, based on the one game between the two, Pitt looks superior.

If Pitt can win these final five game and finish the regular season 13-5 and 25-6 , the first season in the ACC will be considered a success, despite the awful six-game stretch just completed.


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